Gassner Award 1999

In the fall of 1993, while Russian society and culture are in the midst of massive adjustment to the post-Communist era, five American college students come to Moscow to study with artists from the renowned Moscow Art Theater. They are united by their passion for theater and their eagerness for adventure in this tumultuous, fascinating city, but are challenged by their different backgrounds and agendas: Minna is a dedicated theater student who finds the Russian language inscrutable; she is put off by Michael, who goes by his Russian nickname Misha, speaks good Russian, and is intent on assimilating himself even at the expense of alienating his American cohorts. Geoff, an affable musical theater buff, can't comprehend Gwen, a frumpy, sardonic feminist; Jessica can't eat any Russian food because of her non-fat diet and seems more interested in partying than in studying the Method. They are fed and housed by Tataiana, a poor pensioner who rents out rooms in her apartment to foreign students in order to combat staggering inflation.

Their studies take shape as a mixture of inspiration and confusion: Chudarinsky, the genial program director, lectures on Russian theater history; Lyuba gamely attempts to teach them Russian; Bogachov, a prominent director, dazzles them with his insight. Most importantly, the students begin scene study of Chekhov's Three Sisters with Laskin, a renowned master teacher who draws them into the work with his energy and affection.

Still, Laskin's own position within the new Russia is shaky, and he appears to take refuge in vodka. Meanwhile, in the world outside the classroom, a tense standoff between President Yeltsin and rebellious Communist hard-liners escalates toward violence.

When Laskin comes to class outrageously drunk, the students are horrified but divided on how to respond. They end up walking out of class. The conflict explodes into open fighting as Yeltsin's troops square off with the rebels. The students are trapped inside the apartment with a distraught Tatiana and artillery firing in the background. In the intense atmosphere, the interpersonal conflicts come to a head. For a moment it seems that their actions have destroyed the group, and maybe Laskin as well. Then Bogachov, the benevolent but demanding directing teacher, volunteers to take over the class when Laskin is incapacitated.

Under his tutelage, they tackle their scene work with a new honesty, discovering their own souls in connection to Chekhov's characters. As they prepare for their final performance, they finally make strides towards honesty with themselves and each other: Minna and Misha accept their differences, Geoff and Gwen find greater sympathy, and Jessica's underlying misery is driven out into the open. Bogachov helps them recognize the positive change that Moscow has made in them. But as they go onstage, the voice of the absent Laskin, the sacrificial lamb of their success, hovers over them.

For more information, contact Ginger Lazarus.